This article was originally published on The Huffington Post on September 27, 2016

Prisoners are regulars on the court scene. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that one of the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens is the right of access to the courts, and prisoners certainly exercise that right. Whether it’s asking the courts to review their sentences and convictions, or requesting them to look into their conditions of confinement, inmates make up a considerable amount of the judicial system’s docket ― around 100,000 prisoner-initiated court actions annually, or about one court case for every 20 prisoners. But how successful are they?


Whether the court receives a notice of appeal from a criminal defendant or a notice of lawsuit from a prisoner, the court must first decide whether to dismiss or accept the case. The court can dismiss the case, not review it on its merits, if it does not have jurisdiction, if there is a procedural error that prevents it from reviewing it, such as an untimely filing of documents, or if the notice does not actually allege any errors that the court can review.

Almost half of all prisoner-initiated court actions are dismissed before they begin.

· Dismissal of criminal appeals from conviction or sentence: 37%*

· Dismissal of prisoner-filed lawsuits on prison conditions: 53%


Not every case that gets accepted by the court goes to trial. As the case progresses through the court system, some get settled, some get dismissed, depending on the legal wrangling of each side.

The majority of criminal appeals make it to trial, while very few prisoner-filed lawsuits get their day in court.

· Criminal appeals that have a trial: 63%

· Prisoner-filed lawsuits that receive a trial: 17%


The large majority of prisoner-involved court actions that make it before the court are unsuccessful. Oddly, the prisoner’s odds of success are very similar whether they are appealing a conviction/sentence or challenging their conditions of confinement.

· Successful criminal appeals (reversals/remands): 12%

· Successful prisoners-filed lawsuits: 10.8%

Whether dismissed right away, or dragged out through a lengthy trial, prisoners, on average, have roughly a one-in-ten shot at a successful outcome. What’s most glaring, however, is the early successful outcome for the opposition ― the state, in most cases, or the prison. About a third of all criminal appeal cases are decided for the state at the outset. For prison condition-related cases, nearly 85% are ruled in favor of the prison before the prisoner has a chance to voice his complaint.

* [All statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics]

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